As game developers, we talk quite a bit about how we can build games that allow an author to express themselves more clearly. What about the flip side of the game equation? How can we build games that allow the player to express themselves in a rich and meaningful fashion?
I find player expression within games fascinating for a couple reasons.
Here are several types of player expression I look for in a system. These all exist on a spectrum and each is a design tool, not a prescription for how things must be done in all situations. You can treat these as potential lens and ask yourself "Can I use this specific factor to improve player expression in my design?"
1. Player generated solutions
Can the player come up with unique feeling solutions to a problem?
Lots: An example of such a system would be Tetris in which there are a massive number of ways to complete a line.
Little: The opposite of such a system is a simple puzzle like a riddle in which there is only one solution and one path to that solution. Even a well regarded title like Myst has little in the way player generated solutions.
2. Player tool choice
Does the player have a choice of a variety of unique, yet equally valid tools?
Lots: In the Sims, the player can satisfy the game's goals using a huge variety of objects, most of which are roughly equivalent.
Little: Quick time event where the tools required to solve the problem are pre-selected and there is little to no possible variation allowed by the design. You can press the button as prescribed or not press the button.
3. Play styles that support player identity
Does the game support a variety of unique play styles so that a player can express who they are through how they do something?
Lots: In Chess, players can be aggressive, casual, defensive or sneaky all through their actions. Each player has a stylistic flavor that says something about them as a person (and their relationship with the other player). As the expressive richness of verbs increases, play turns into performance.
Little: In a linear game like Dragon's Lair, different playthroughs by different players are nearly indistinguishable. There is little room for player identity.
4. Evoking player identity
Can the player express their identity within the thematic constraints of the game's content?
Lots: In a game like Second Life, if you really want to be a Marie Antoinette look alike sporting a halo, you can be. Gender, race, culture, sex, age, affiliation, hair color, skin color, fashion, role are all areas that players associate with their identity. These need not be realistic since one common class of play involves pushing of boundaries in order to try out various identities and see how they fit.
Little: In the game God of War, you can be Kratos. That's pretty much all you can be.
5. Player set intermediate goals
Though there may be an overarcing goal to the game, is it common for players to set their own intermediate goals
Lots: In a game like Civilization, you know you want to beat the game. The path to victory involves the selection of research projects, buildings, army deployments and other short to medium goals that are all optional. The goals that the game provides may also be remixed into player specific strategic objectives
Little: In the early stages of Final Fantasy XIII, the player goes from encounter to encounter. There is little goal setting (apart from character advancement)
6. Build social relationships
Does the game allow enough communication, persistence of identity and shared space to build meaningful social relationships? Do the tools (implicit and explicit) exist to negotiate issues of trust, status and group membership via the game?
Lots: An MMO like Everquest has persistent characters and plenty of opportunity to both chat, compete and perform together.
Little: Standard Bejeweled is often played along as a means of relaxing. For most, there is very little interaction with other players. Note that it only takes relatively minor changes to switch context so that you have a mode like Bejeweled Blitz which ends up being far more social as you compete with and against other players.
7. Shared goals
Does the game allow groups of individuals to work together towards a common goal?
Lots: In World of Warcraft, a guild of players works together to beat a big boss. This requires communication and coordination at a rather intense level. There exist strong dependencies between players that encourage creative social arrangements.
Little: An equally multiplayer game like Doom death match can often feel like there are no shared goals. Players are focused almost entirely on their own interests. The introduction of clans changes the equation dramatically.
8. Crafting of share-able artifacts that represent things external to the game
Can you build something in the game that evokes the real world?
Lots: In the Sims, you can setup relationships that mimic actual families. You then can either share the file or capture a storybook of the interactions. This ends tying the game into out of game communities and magnifying the social impact of player expression. Think of games as a method of generating experiences and stories as a means of sharing those experiences.
Little: In a text adventure like Zork, there was very little to share. During the era it was released, you couldn't capture the screen easily, nor could you share it with others. You couldn't creating anything. At best you could verbally tells someone about something that existed entirely inside the game. The fact that people did this at all demonstrates how strong the urge is to share.
9. Persistence of player history
Can the player(s) build up a long term history of past actions? Can they invest in their own unique history?
Lots: A season of soccer is a soap opera months in the making. The team's standing reflects a complex aggregation of personal training, injuries, luck and performance. Stats are collected, tales written and shared, videos recorded. The end result is a dense historical narrative that will be mined for years.
Little: A brief game of Dys4ia creates no history. It does however mix the theme into the player's mental models of the world. This process is the essential heart of conveying an authored narrative to an audience but still it does not directly generate an expressive player history. What you can hope for in this situation is that a meta-game played beyond the constraints of the work itself yields ripples of reactions. (Arguably, the meta-game is what contains the expressive ruleset and the static work becomes a move by a player.)
10. Sharing of performances with a broader audience
Once players have created a unique, personal performance, can they share it with others?
Lots: The avid audience and broadcasting networks associated with a game like Starcraft greatly facilitate the sharing of great play.
Little: Many German boardgames such as Puerto Rico are impenetrable to outside viewers. Also since they are played in private spaces with few recording opportunities or explanation of the game's dynamics, spectating is quite rare. The result is a game with relatively weak virality that is difficult to explain. "You really just need to play it. A couple times" becomes the fallback. This sadly limits the world's appreciation of elite board game players and perhaps even hurts their dating chances.
Can players modify the rules and game data to reflect personal or group desires? Can players take ownership of the design?
Lots: Though modding digital games like Quake, Half-Life or Skyrim are perhaps the most cited examples, consider modding in the broad sense as seen in a playground game of tag. Players will on the fly create new constraints such as safe zones or alternate goals. Unofficial rules, house rules and cheating become a form of modding. Also consider traditional roleplaying games or story games where the player craft the narrative of the game. When combined with persistent player history, you end up with amazing world building opportunities.
Little: A locked down, heavily scripted console title like Limbo offers nearly zero modding capabilities.
A broad opportunity
There are some common themes here. You need not hit all of them in order to build a game that enables player expression:
Together, these cover a universe of interesting games. There are a few existing genres that tap into several of these techniques. Simulation games, Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress inspired building games, Expressive PvP games and MMOs all share expressive elements. Overall, it feels like a space poorly explored. For every Minecraft, there are a dozen consumable single player titles that generate value through a linear mix of puzzle and narrative.
What delightful new games could we make if we focused our minds and hearts on maximizing player expression?